Theatre: Memories are made of this

MNEMONIC RIVERSIDE STUDIOS LONDON

MNEMONIC BEGINS with a kind of mass seance. In the only feature of this Theatre de Complicite show that is like flying Virgin Atlantic, you're given a little plastic bag with a complementary blindfold and - more Virgil than Virgin - a single leaf.

While everyone is thus blinkered, Simon McBurney, acting like a cross between a stand-up comic and a metaphysical hypnotist, invites you to concentrate on ever more distant moments in your past - New Year's Day 1999; your first day at school etc, and then to the receding vistas of the ancestry which, viewed far enough back, relates everyone in the audience to each other. He then invites you to feel the leaf, imagining that its veins are the complex lines of heritage, ending in the stalk which is you.

This prelude ushers in a wonderfully arresting piece of theatre that could perhaps best be described as a sizzle of connections across the collective synapses. Full of weird scenic mergers, cross-fades, revolving juxtapositions and internal echoes, the show takes us on two simultaneous detective trails into the past.

One follows the forensic and ethical fall-out of the discovery in 1991 in the Austrian alps of the ice-preserved, naked body of a Neolithic man from 5,200 years ago. If that time-scale makes our millennium celebrations look a somewhat parochial affair, the other strand lures us on a mysterious hunt back across the history of our own century.

Alice is desperate to find the father her mother had always claimed was dead. This desire pitches her on an emotionally bruising journey to Berlin, Riga, Warsaw, Switzerland and beyond, and back into the nomadic fate of a representative East European refugee. Caught in a no-man's land between the two worlds is Alice's former boyfriend, Virgil. Played by McBurney, who also conceived and directed the piece, this character provides the show's central image: a naked male body lying on its/his left side, head against a stone - sometimes the Iceman, sometimes Virgil and occupying the tricky interstice between memory and imagination.

The dazzling blizzard of synchronicities in Mnemonic, brilliantly achieved by an endlessly resourceful production, should not blind one to the fact that its primary appeal is to the heart, not the intellect. It is the sort of show that Robert Lepage might create if he had the emotional intelligence. Two simple moral truths emerge. One is that we must rethink our relationship with the past's immensity and learn to empathise with the figure of the Iceman, displayed in its museum fridge, rather than gawp at it with touristic curiosity. This wisdom is conveyed in a beautiful sequence where the cast rotate in an endless cycle of taking it in turns to assume his position.

The second is that when the facts run out, there is an honourable human need for stories. Here my single quibble pops up. The academics with their competing interpretations of the Iceman are presented as self-promoting buffoons. It's very funny, but why is their compulsion to make narrative sense of the phenomenon less worthy of respect than this show? That's a minor caveat, for Mnemonic leaves you needing no aide-memoire: it is authentically unforgettable.

To 8 Jan (0181-237 1111)

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